American Idol: the first post

Here’s the Dial M thought for the day:

The aesthetic ideal of pop is the perfect realization of the expected pattern.

This means, (a), that pop is a classicizing aesthetic, not an innovating, modernizing one; and (b) pop is involved with common experience, i.e., those aspects of musical life held that we, as Americans, hold in common. And although the zone of “what Americans hold in common” is getting smaller, pop music is still in it. You may hate “The Piano Man” and that theme from Titanic that Celine Dion sang, whatever it’s called, but you still know it when you hear it.

Which might begin to account for all the hatin’ on American Idol by critical and academical types. Pop is not about individual self-expression or aesthetic innovation. It gives the public what it wants, not what it “needs.” The very idea of giving the public what it “needs” presupposes someone — a professor, a lawgiver critic in the Partisan Review mold, or a mandarin composer — who will decide what that something is. American Idol, on the contrary, turns the inbuilt libertarian principle of pop (that it rewards and is rewarded by The People, who vote with their money) into a basic organizational strategy and the most characteristic aspect of its spectacle: the whole vote-for-your-favorite thing.* All those wannabe lawgivers** — and in this catagory I include the journalists who every year write bloviating articles about how AI signals the decline in TV, musical standards, and American Culture in general, always in terms that demonstrate that they don’t know enough music to understand the spectacle they’re damning — just hate this. “Why wasn’t I consulted”? is the basic subtext of critical-academical hatin’ on AI and pop in general.

You will have surmised that I love this show. It premiered last night, and I watched it, of course, with my son.*** I have to say, though, that I don’t generally watch the first shows of AI — the cattle-call auditions where tends of thousands of people show up to sing unaccompanied auditions in a half-dozen cities across the U.S. It’s been said that there are two kinds of AI fans: those who like the show after it moves to Hollywood and features the competition among individuals who have made it past the cattle-call stage; and fans who like the freak-show spectacle of the first few weeks, when the deluded and attention-starved make jackasses of themselves for the delectation of the American people. I count myself in the first group. All those critics who say that AI plays to a nasty streak of low humor at the expense of others (Wagnerian humor, I’ve argued) actually have a point. Watching the early going is the musical equivalent of watching people eat bugs for money. Still, my blogging duty compels me to write about the premiere show, at least. Below are the notes, lightly edited for coherence, that I took while watching the show last night. Throughout I tried to answer the question, why watch the pre-Hollywood part of AI? Is there something to be said for this kind of spectacle? I’m not sure if I found an answer.

*This will not start for a couple of months, but which is what has made American Idol a monster, paradigm-changing smash hit.

**And in the realm of culture all lawgivers are wannabe lawgivers, because (and they never seem entirely to grasp this) culture is elective. You don’t need a lawgiver for stuff you are not compelled by law to do.

***We’re iced in on the third day of a massive winter storm — in Austin, for cry-eye — so what else were we gonna do?

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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3 Responses to American Idol: the first post

  1. Hmmm, I lost you at the start there. While there may be a case for stating that a lot of pop is about realizing the expected, there seems to be way too much innovation (from, say, _Revolver_ to ‘Get Yr Freak On’) to make the generalisations you begin with. On the sonic level, I’d say a lot of pop is pretty close to the bleeding edge, and constantly rejuvenating; but on a formal level perhaps not much has changed in 50 years. It’s a question of how close you focus, which I guess means that a statement like “Pop is not about … aesthetic innovation” requires some qualification.
    I’m not saying I can’t imagine how that qualification might work, but it’s one I’d need convincing on.

  2. eba says:

    Dial M talks American Idol?
    American Idol?
    The American Idol?
    OK. I watch it too. That’s cool.

  3. ECG says:

    eba: dude, Il Ford has been clear for months about the serious AI posting fixing to get underway once that time of year rolled around (ie, now). Wherefore the surprise?

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